“We’re three black women chasing a white cop down the freeway in 1961. That there is a goddamn miracle.” From that early line, Theodore Melfi’s well-intentioned “” establishes itself as a blunt, feel-good adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, which chronicled three African-American women who played key roles in NASA’s early space efforts. However, this is storytelling on autopilot, and it deserves more.
In that opening scene, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and her co-workers Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) are pulled over by a police officer; he’s shocked to find out they’re rushing to the space agency. Their retort: “There are quite a few of us women working on the space program.”
Soon, we see that the women in “Hidden Figures” are just that. Their work at NASA sticks them in a back room digging through mounds of equations, while white male engineers argue over the best way to beat the Soviets into space. Although it’s a fairly obvious window into the blatant gender and racial disparities that plagued southern life in the 1960s, these brilliant and individualistic women of color got no credit and it’s hard to fault the production for pulling every heartstring.
Even when Katherine is upgraded to the main calculations room and takes charge of efforts to send John Glenn (Glenn Powell) into space, she’s lorded over by stern project director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and must run across campus in high heels to use the segregated washroom. Her challenge becomes a key motif, as she dashes about the workspace helping hordes of white men figure out how to launch a rocket into space, and she outsmarts them all.
Once “Hidden Figures” drops hints that it’s heading toward Katherine’s triumph, it follows one predictable beat after another, pausing for the occasional showdown between black and white characters. Some of these face-offs are particularly meaty, such as when Spencer’s Dorothy hears from her icy supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) that she “has nothing against y’all.” Dorothy replies, “I’m sure you believe that;” both characters wait a beat, as if they’re priming the audience to chortle.
“Hidden Figures” is anchored by Taraji P. Henson’s powerful portrayal of Katherine, a brilliantly conceived mixture of geekiness and repressed feminism. Her performance is only thrown off once, when she has to deliver a preachy monologue that sets her situation right.
At its worst, “Hidden Figures” trivializes history; as a hagiographic tribute to its brilliant protagonists, it doesn’t dig into the essence of their struggles. There’s slick cinematography by Mandy Walker, an uplifting score by Hans Zimmer, and a handful of lively original songs from Pharrell Williams, but the movie’s polished surfaces don’t disguise that we’re left with an old-fashioned narrative devoid of creative risks.
Fortunately, the film avoids the rut of other movies in that camp — most prominently, “The Help” — that insert white saviors to fuse the dramatic arc. Costner’s administrator comes close, but ultimately “Hidden Figures” keeps its focus on the real stars of the show.
Melfi smartly underplays some moments, but much of “Hidden Figures” has the flimsy quality of a treatment in search of a movie. Viewed on its own terms, that may be just enough. At a time when calls for diverse media dominate the industry, “Hidden Figures” hedges its bets with a family-friendly commercial solution: warm and fuzzy storytelling that’s both progressive and safe.
“Hidden Figures” opens nationwide December 25.